Poetry does not come out of the blue to 'arty types', writes John Mole
That "all art comes from a generous impulse" is one of the challenging observations made by Tony Harrison during the course of a particularly well-conducted interview, extracts from which are interspersed between one of his vivid, face-to-face readings. This excellent and absorbing 50-minute video has been extracted from a longer, previously-issued poetry video from the English and Media Centre, and is worth a whole shelf of course books.
Harrison's insistence that "people's identities are rooted in the language they speak" and his comments on poetic craft and principle, the importance of rhyme and metre ("metrical energy, for me, means blood and heartbeat and survival"), and the role of poetry in society, its synthesis of therapy and form, are all delivered with a thoughtfulness likely to engage even the most resistant student.
There is a strong autobiographical element to many of his observations about the poetic art and his account of how the Gulf War poem "Initial Illumination" came to be written is an engrossing insight on the process of composition. "Difficulty is our plough," says Harrison, quoting Yeats, who also wrote of "the fascination of what's difficult". This tape manages to convey the almost visceral excitement of finding the shape of a poem. It's a fine corrective to classroom notions that poetry comes out of the blue to arty types or that it has little relevance to others unless it is instantly entertaining.
In his notes to teachers, Brian Moon prefaces Studying Poetry by declaring that what follows "openly emphasises analysis and enquiry, though without ignoring the connections poetry can have to individual and social experience". He clearly has reservations about what he calls "experience oriented" resource books, and is intent on giving students a clearer understanding of how poetry works.
At first glance, with its grids, panels, response sheets and crammed pages, Studying Poetry looks like a manual that Robin Williams might have instructed his students to tear the pages from at the beginning of Dead Poets' Society, but in the hands of teachers ready to supplement and endorse its procedures with their own enthusiasm it will have very considerable value.
With an emphasis on group activity and the sharing of discovery and response, its six sections lead a class from its initial discussion of personal favourite poems, via the question "What is poetry?", towards an examination of forms and functions, the skills needed to write a poetry critique (with examples from students) and a survey of "theories and practices".
Jeffrey and Lynn Wood's course book, Cambridge Poetry Workshop 16+, is full of ideas for displays and storyboards and offers plenty of bullet-point suggestions, such as "polish your performances and then make a video of them to put in the library for others to enjoy". With its attractive cover and lay-out, and its reasonable price, it looks like a winner and contains some good choices of poems.
There is a promising opening sequence of passages and activities on Gawain, the Iliad, Shakespeare and Marlowe, but its determinedly user-friendly tone often sounds rather patronising and there is a glib tendency to stereotype. For example, after Carol Ann Duffy's "The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team", the suggestion that students should write a poem modelled on it runs: "Try to convey to the reader how terribly sad, how long past your sell-by date, you will seem in 70 years time." Maybe I'm just feeling my age, but that strikes me as sending out dubious signals.
There are a number of insights in the linking of poems. (It is good to see a recommendation of David Jones's "In Parenthesis" and the awareness that Dylan Thomas's appearance in a radio version of it probably inspired his "Under Milk Wood", from which a good extract is selected.) Given this degree of informed judgment, it is all the more shocking to find T S Eliot's famous poem referred to throughout an entire secton as The Wasteland. "What do you think the title The Wasteland means? Literally and metaphorically?" It means, I'm afraid, that editors should look more carefully at the texts in front of them.
John Mole is the City of London's first official poet and former head of English at St Albans School